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Behind the Lawrence Legend

the Forgotten Few Who Shaped the Arab Revolt

by Walker, Philip

The legend of “Lawrence of Arabia” has lodged in the hearts and minds of three generations. He has been eulogised and debunked, and millions of words have been written about this most enigmatic of characters and his achievements. Legend and fact have been expertly untangled, and arcane minutiae have been dissected and pored over. But in essence the unknowable self lies deep within him, as for all of us.

   Behind the Lawrence Legend takes a fresh approach to the Arab Revolt 1916-1918, by looking at it through the experiences of twelve British officers and intelligence operatives. The key man was Colonel Cyril Wilson, previously seen as having just a supporting role at Jeddah. The others are all unknown or little known, and their gripping stories are told through a mixture of archival research and astonishing collections of recently discovered letters, diaries, photographs and other documents. Philip Walker uncovered these primary sources through genealogical and other research, contacting the descendants of about twenty Arab Revolt officers in an attempt to find some “unknown unknowns” of the revolt.

  Lieutenant Lionel Gray, a cipher officer at Jeddah, Aqaba and Aleppo, kept hundreds of stunning photographs, hundreds of letters from and to him, secret cable message notebooks, and a wealth of other military and intelligence documents. Gray’s lost story is interconnected with that of Cyril Wilson and the stories of the other forgotten officers and all are interwoven with the familiar narrative of T. E. Lawrence and the revolt, but with new insights on Lawrence’s deceptions and complex motivations.

    The Colonel Blimp-like Cyril Wilson is surprisingly revealed as an indispensable figure whose Jeddah circle sustained and shaped the revolt. Lawrence played a vital role, but without Wilson and his men’s crucial interventions the revolt could not have had its hollow success and the world would not have heard of “Lawrence of Arabia”.

One of Lawrence’s completely forgotten comrades-in-arms, Lieutenant Leslie Bright, who filled a notebook with hard-won intelligence while living among Bedouin tribes, was praised by a colleague for “a great work quietly done”. This could have been an epitaph for Cyril Wilson and for others who have slipped below the radar of historians, and whose role in helping safeguard and shape the Arab Revolt deserves to be celebrated during its centenary year.

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Comments

"A refreshing account of the Arab Revolt which reveals the untold and exciting stories of Lawrence's fellow officers, secret servicemen and Arab spies and their accomplishments.A long overdue appraisal and a balance to Lawrence's own writings."

Lawrence James, author of The Golden Warior

Reviews:

" There’s no doubt that in setting out to rescue Lawrence’s colleagues from obscurity, Philip Walker has performed a valuable service. Like Lawrence they were brave, unorthodox and more than a little cracked. But there were two critical differences — they lacked Lawrence’s charisma, as well as his sense of destiny. All this puts Walker in the awkward position of valiantly trying to push the supporting cast towards the middle of the stage while the main character is hogging the spotlight. It says a good deal for the strength of his conviction and his powers of persuasion that, by the end, you want to give them all a clap."


Reviews: Daily Mail

"...an extremely welcome addition to the existing literature on the Arab Revolt in 1916-18. Exhaustively researched and colourfully written, it provides a nuanced and detailed sketch of the way the British assisted the Arab rebels, and brings to life a number of key actors whose roles have either been forgotten or obscured by the Lawrence legend."

Saul David

Reviews: Daily Telegraph

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